Anyone not living in a cave with no wi-fi, knows Jon Stewart is leaving the “Daily Show” and Brian Williams has been suspended without pay from his anchor/managing editor role on NBC’s “Nightly News.” For the cavebound: Stewart’s leaving on his own terms to “have dinner with my family on a school night.” Williams misrepresented his reporting in Iraq, Hurricane Katrina, and, at this writing, as NBC reviews his work – who knows in how many other stories. I’d bet that even my neighbor’s dog has been sucked into the Stewart/Williams/news/satire vortex. I have.
Like so many pundits, bloggers, subway strapholders, and bar patrons, I can’t help but wonder: Has the world like Humpty-Dumpty fallen down? Are we at-last literally in Alice in Wonderland? Has the “real” news become an act of the imagination, our newest form of satire, false memory or “creative” non-fiction? Has satire morphed from the “fake” to the “real” news? Will we turn to our contemporary Jonathon Swifts and Shakespeares not for comedy, drama or the provocation and consolation of art – but for the “hard news,” documentation of our times?
“Both men spent more than a decade on top of their business for good reason,” David Carr wrote in The New York Times, “Mr. Williams...slid into the big chair in 2004 by the time he was 45. Mr. Stewart...found his sweet spot and opened up a singular vein in American comedy.”
Now, the boundaries between news and entertainment – reporting and satire – seem fluid, porous -- even obliterated. It’s as if our satire and news gods have become conjoined twins. Yet, after taking a nano-sec to breathe, I’ve come to remember what’s so often true: though names, face and technology differ, the present frequently echos the past.
In the United States (the country whose media I’m most familiar with), the lines historically have been blurred in the broadcast news biz. Walter Cronkite, the most trusted man in America in his time, hosted an infotainment show called “You Are There.” Edward R. Murrow, a news icon, renown for his searing coverage of the McCarthy hearings on “See It Now,” interviewed celebs from Lauren Bacall to Liberace on “Person to Person.” Tom Brokaw, the revered anchor and Greatest Generation chronicler, hosted the “Today” show.
Perhaps, the difference is that Cronkite, Murrow and most other of our current and past news icons see (or saw) themselves as news reporters, first and foremost. They might interview celebs to help make the dough their networks need to support their news divisions, or get their start on the morning infotainment shows. But that’s not what they value most. Williams appears to be a “horse of a different color.” What’s so sad about his downfall is that he’s appeared to be highly talented as both an anchor and entertainer. Over the years, I’ve laughed appreciatively countless times as Williams “slow jammed the news” with Jimmy Fallon or hosted “Saturday Night Live.” Unfortunately, hubris appears to have infected Williams. He seems to be mesmerized by the camera and to want to make people laugh more than to inform the public. “I am a creature of live television,” Williams told “The New York Times. Reportedly, he told NBC brass that he would have loved to have replaced Jay Leno on “The Tonight Show.”
Though his satiric talent will be sorely missed, Stewart is far from the first to satirize the news industry. Take one of my fave movies “Broadcast News,” the 1987 brilliant, witty, romantic, spot-on satire of the news business, directed by James Brooks. Some films date over the years. Not this picture. Other than lacking references to Twitter or Facebook, it’s as fast-paced and ironic as the latest Twitter hashtag. Unless you’re on the way to accept your Nobel Prize, drop everything to check it out.
“Broadcast News,” set in the Washington, D.C. bureau of a TV network, is the story of three ambitious colleagues – Tom Grunick (William Hurt), Aaron Altman (Albert Brooks) and Jane Craig (Holly Hunter). Tom Brokaw was reportedly the inspiration for Tom Grunick (William Hurt), the good-looking, but empty-headed reporter/anchor in the movie. “What can you do when everyone thinks you’re good-looking,” Tom, as a young boy asked his Dad. Later, he straightforwardly tells his co-workers that he’s “no good at what I’m being a success at.” He’s a nice guy, but he sorely lacks reporting skills. Tom can only anchor breaking news if the information is fed to him by a producer through an ear-piece. And, he has no scruples about adding tears to a shot in a feature on date-rape after he’s already reported the story.
Jane is a workaholic producer, committed to accurately and ethically reporting the news. Even as a child, she’s obsessed by work, smart, driven and a tad bossy. “How dare you tell me I’m obsessed!” she screams at her father when he tries one night to get her to quit the books and go to bed, “When you don’t even know what the word means!”
Aaron is a bright, dedicated, general assignment reporter. If truth be told, I’d wager a ton of us creative types, identify with Aaron. His love will nearly always be unrequited; he’ll never have Tom’s good looks or Jane’s ambition. While attempting to anchor the weekend news, he sweats so badly that concerned viewers call in to see if he’s had a heart attack. And who hasn't asked as Aaron asks Jane, "Wouldn't this be a great world if insecurity and desperation made us more attractive?"
Despite their flaws, these characters, as Bogie says in “Casablanca” have a “beautiful friendship.” If you want both the inside dope and hope about the news biz, check out “Broadcast News.”